From 'Angry Birds' to 'Madagascar 2,' What's It Like to Production Design for Animation?

Production designer Pete Oswald talks to us about his role in creating the worlds of feature-length animations.

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Jul 5 2016, 6:50pm

An original sketch of concept art made during the development of The Angry Birds Movie, by Pete Oswald. Photo courtesy of Pete Oswald/Rovio.

From a scientist who makes it rain meatballs to a gothic hotel run by Dracula and his macabre cronies, Pete Oswald’s fingerprints are all over the cutting edge of animated feature films. Marked by a bright, colorful, slightly angular style, Oswald and his team are often the first to set down the look of a movie. The Annie Award-nominated production designer worked on the aforementioned Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania, with work appearing in Madagascar 2, and The Angry Birds Movie.

While the term “production designer” is most often associated with live-action filmmaking, Oswald describes his position as crucial to animation. “In live action, the production designer is responsible for building out sets and it’s practical work, which in essence is the same thing that I’m doing as a production designer for animation.” Oswald says the “PD” on an animated feature is responsible for the overall look of a film. “Through drawings and paintings, my team and I create the atmosphere and emotion that supports the script. We’re creating everything from the design of the characters to the design of the world. And in animation, you have to create everything from scratch. If you’re shooting something live action you can pick up a camera and your trees are there, buildings are there, whatever you’re shooting… something exists. But in animation you have to create it all.”

A “sketch to screen” of the island the birds live on in The Angry Birds Movie. Photo courtesy of Pete Oswald/Rovio.

The vast emptiness of content, which can easily be filled by a computer, is also one of the biggest challenges of the job. “The computer can do anything and everything you tell it to do,” says Oswald. “To figure out what we’re going to do, how we’re going to tell the story, how we’re going to do it on budget, and how’s it going to look fantastic and support the characters and the script. When your menu is that full, because the computer is that powerful, it’s about picking and choosing where you want the audience to look.”

“It’s about picking and choosing where you want the audience to look,” says Pete Oswald. Here, in a finalized scene, there’s a depth of design. Photo courtesy of Pete Oswald/Rovio.

“The very first thing I do is read the script,” says Oswald. “And then I do research. I do tons and tons of research. In some films we travel, we take photographs. In this case [The Angry Birds Movie] it was about finding tons of photo reference. Then you start drawing and sketching and creating the environments for the film.” And all this leads to work that is fundamentally crucial to the atmosphere of the film. As Oswald explains, “I think a true sign of a great production designer in animation is something you just feel. As a viewer you notice the beauty of it, but you’re not noticing every little thing. So it’s more of a feeling.”

A “sketch to screen” showing the development process of Bird Court in The Angry Birds Movie. Photo courtesy of Pete Oswald/Rovio.

You can see more of Pete Oswald’s work on his Tumblr, and check out The Angry Birds Movie this summer.

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